Sunday, March 15, 2009

Religion As a Cost-Benefit Calculation

Here's a thought I had tonight. I'm not sure it really goes anywhere or is useful in any way, but here goes:

The claim is often made that human beings act entirely in their own self-interest; that is, they do everything because they expect to benefit in some way, even if that benefit is just to feel virtuous. I've always found this to be an overly cynical way of looking at human behavior, but it's hard to argue your way out of that basic proposition. We do things expecting to benefit from our actions.

Conversely, though, we also avoid things out of self-interest. "It hurts" might be our secret excuse for putting off dentistry. "It's too much trouble" is our way of letting inertia have its way. "What if they don't like me?" might keep you from auditioning or speaking up. And so on. That's the crux of cost-benefit analysis in everyday life. If the attraction of the expected benefit is greater than the avoidance generated by expected negative consequences, we will probably do whatever it is. If not, then not.

Let's apply this idea first to a simple behavior before moving on to a more problematic one. Let's say some annoying blogger (to name no names!) keeps mentioning certain games on Facebook. If a reader of that blog isn't even on Facebook and thinks Facebook is too much trouble, a waste of time, etc., chances are that reader will never try the game, even if it sounds vaguely interesting. But if the reader is on Facebook already, and the reader expects to enjoy the game, he or she may well try it. The expected benefit (having fun) outweigh the expected cost (dealing with Facebook and learning the game).

Having tried the game, the reader has another calculation to make. Is the game actually fun? Are there new costs to balance against the fun? Well, yes. In the case of the games I'm thinking of, it is difficult to progress (and thus have fun) without soliciting friends (or strangers, or both) as allies in the game. Is it worth the effort? Some will still find the benefit outweighs the cost, but others will not. And there are further calculations beyond that.

It's the same thing with eating, or going to the gym, or even going to work. Is it worth preparing a proper meal, or is a bowl of cereal nearly as great a benefit for less cost? Is the benefit the body and mind will derive from working out greater than the benefit of relaxing in front of the tv instead? Is the job worth the daily slog, knowing that good jobs are scarce and there are bills to be paid?

Okay, now here's the tricky part. I've been thinking tonight about how easy it is to persuade some people to become avid gamers, and wondering how this whole cost-benefit mechanism applies to religion in general, and going to church specifically. If the person is a confirmed atheist - that is, utterly convinced that there is no God - then it would be extremely difficult to provide that person with sufficient expected benefit for that person to attend church. The primary benefit others perceive would not apply. The social component, in which the person expects to enjoy being around other people in a group activity, is outweighed by considerations of possible hypocrisy and supporting what one does not believe in. Really, the only scenarios I can think of in which an atheist would go to a traditional church involve either the benefit of a non-religious activity - e.g. receiving a bag of groceries in a time of need, or being involved in providing services to others in need - or an unusual degree of expected cost of not going, such as when the spouse nags the person into it, or the politician is aware that atheism would not go down well with many of his constituents.

That's one extreme. At the other extreme, the True Believer believes that the expected benefit, namely eternal life, etc., outweighs any possible cost. But what if the person believes the expected benefit can be derived without the cost? Maybe it's enough to believe a certain way, without the trouble of going to church. Or what if the promised benefit doesn't seem real and immediate, compared with the cost? Heaven is a pie-in-the-sky, long-term consideration, like losing weight. Sometimes you'd just rather have the pie on the plate. Instant gratification is a powerful thing. Result: if the immense but distant (or vaguely believed) expected benefit of going to church is outweighed by the feeling that "it's too much trouble" or "maybe next week," then even the believer may not show up on Sunday.

So what if you're a pastor, a vestry member, a church webmaster, or someone else with an interest in bringing more people into the church? The obvious thing to do is to try to influence the potential churchgoer's cost-benefit analysis. Either the expected benefit needs to be as strong as possible, or the expected cost needs to be as light as possible, or both. Here are some possibilities:

  • Convince others that the cost of not attending church is too great to be viable. This is the nuclear option, the idea that skipping church is a mortal sin. Hey, it worked for Catholics for many years.
  • Convince others that there is an immediate, observable benefit from attending church. Make it fun, or inspiring. Give us magnificent or hip music, a great sermon, coffee and doughnuts. Market the church as the "cool church," and yourself as the "fighting young priest who can talk to the young."
  • Make it easy to go, so the burden is light. Offer day care and Sunday school so there's no babysitter issue. Have services at a variety of convenient times. Have plenty of free parking. And maybe, just maybe, ask very little of churchgoers in the way of living out their faith. Don't ask them to feed the hungry or visit the prisoners, or to love their enemies. Skip over anything that might require critical thought or an unselfish attitude. Yeah, that'll get 'em.
As I say, I'm not sure any of this is useful. For what it's worth, I enjoy going to St. Michael's. The service fits with my beliefs and sensibilities, the music is interesting and sometimes challenging, I like the people, I enjoy serving as an acolyte, and it's fun to sit with friends at coffee hour afterward. And the cost of not going, for me, is not that it's a mortal sin or anything, but that I'd let down Kevin, who depends on me for a ride, and Proscovia, who depends on me to carry a torch or a crucifix, and occasionally to read from the Old Testament.

But how do I take this insight and try to convince people who don't know Kevin and Proscovia and the rest that the benefit of attending St. Michael's outweighs the inertia of "it's too much trouble" or "what if they don't like me?" Well, aside from assuring folks that of course we'll like you, I have no idea. I only know that about 12 years ago, I overcame my own inertia in the expectation of possible benefit in attending that church on Wilmot, the one with the sign. And for a dozen years, the benefit has far outweighed the cost.


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